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‘Great progress’ made on new UNC Civic Life and Leadership school

Bari Weiss and Frank Bruni set to discuss ‘objectivity in journalism’ this spring

The School of Civic Life and Leadership at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has made “great progress” in its effort to create opportunities for open debate and inquiry, a campus official recently told The College Fix.

The university board approved the creation of the center one year ago, and since then the university has begun hiring faculty and developing a curriculum, according to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“Our vision for the School of Civic Life and Leadership is that it will be a home for the study and practice of public discourse,” Dean Jim White told The College Fix via a media statement.

There are currently nine faculty members hired, White said at a recent board of trustees meeting.

These are “essential tools for today’s students seeking to communicate effectively in an increasingly polarized society,” White said. The arts and sciences college will host the civic life school. He said the new school “will provide a foundational grounding in what it means to be an engaged and informed citizen, the cornerstone of a strong democracy.”

“The inaugural faculty are currently refining the vision and developing the curriculum for the school. The search for a permanent dean and director is underway,” White said.

“We are making great progress,” the dean said. “I have every confidence that we can make the School of Civic Life and Leadership a national model for public discourse and civic engagement.”

White said he wants the school to help brand UNC “as a national leader in embracing our missions of not only educating great new entrepreneurs, scientists and artists, but also excellent citizens prepared to accept the responsibilities inherent in owning their democracy.”

The civic life school currently has an interim director, political science Professor Sarah Roberts.

Professor Roberts said the center will provide an “unparalleled opportunity to converse across differences that simply is not clearly available at other locations across the country,” at the November board of trustees meeting.

“When I think about why we are doing this, the answer is clear: because there is nothing more important,” Roberts said at the meeting. “It is impossible to look around and not see a deterioration of public engagement and discourse. This is the problem of our generation, but more importantly, of our students’ generation.”

She said the school plans to host a spring event with Bari Weiss, founder of The Free Press, and Frank Bruni, a New York Times columnist. The pair will discuss “objectivity in journalism,” Roberts said.

Political scientist who runs similar center endorses idea of civic education

Donald Downs, a political scientist and founder of the University of Wisconsin Madison’s Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, noted the unique role that civic education can play in fostering healthy democratic engagement and an informed citizenry.

In particular, civic education “provides basic knowledge of civic facts and principles, knowledge that is necessary for students to make responsible critical assessment of issues and policies based on facts, logic, and evidence,” Downs said in an email to The College Fix.

This helps students to make informed decisions, “rather than simply asserting opinions based on emotion, ignorance, insufficient information, or conformity to a campus echo chamber,” he said.

Downs said civic education can encourage “critical thinking (that is) more mature and informed, contributing to making citizens… more thoughtful.”

“And in dealing with principles of our free republic, it can instill respect for… differences of opinion that naturally arise in a society consisting of free minds,” Downs said.

Downs said other university leaders should follow UNC’s lead.

“I definitely think that boards of regents of public universities should earnestly consider establishing schools like UNC’s School of Civic Life and Leadership so long as such schools avoid partisanship and indoctrination in their own rights,” Downs said.

“Trustees should push for similar institutions for private universities. Such schools can contribute to the breadth and depth of intellectual engagement.”

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Mark Habelt -- Arizona State University